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Rising to the global challenge

Mark Palmer

Mark Palmer

Tackling health problems around the world demands a global response. With a 100-year history of strategic international collaboration, MRC scientists today collaborate with researchers in more than 100 countries. Dr Mark Palmer, MRC Director of International Strategy, talks to Isabel Baker about the changing landscape of international collaboration and the exciting new opportunities it has to offer.

Has MRC-funded research always been international?

Yes, science is global, it’s an international activity. There has always been the exchange of ideas between people working in science, and these shared ideas spark new innovations and understanding. Science is about trying to progress knowledge. Increasingly, pooling resources allows us to solve problems that we couldn’t tackle alone.

Why collaborate on an international scale?

Firstly, health and diseases don’t recognise borders. Pandemic infections, for example, can only be tackled by taking a global approach. For many diseases it is also essential that research is conducted in those countries where the disease is prevalent. Secondly, many clinical studies may need large cohorts of patients; in particular when the disease is rare, research cannot be conducted in one country alone.

Additionally, international collaboration can give researchers the chance to work in a different political, regulatory or intellectual environment where different approaches have been made to problem solving. Exposure to a different way of thinking, and seeing how other people work, can be hugely beneficial to progressing research in our own country. Has the MRC’s work internationally changed over the last 100 years?

War and empire provided the contexts for the early years of MRC research and undoubtedly shaped both the focus of our overseas activities and the countries with which we partnered. The world has changed in so many ways and there are many new drivers for research. Collaboration has been facilitated by easier international travel, communications and the internet, as well as technological advances underpinning the research. Nevertheless it is fascinating to see that international collaboration has featured consistently throughout all MRC annual reports from the very beginning.

What role does the MRC have in international collaboration?

Science is global (Image credit: Flickr/steveritchie)

Science is global (Image credit: Flickr/steveritchie )

Over 100 years we have gained a great deal of experience and expertise in research and research management, which visiting delegations from overseas are keen to learn about. Our international strategy can be summarised in three words: partnership, leadership and influence.

Our partnerships may be bilateral such as agreements we have with the Department for International Development on global health research, or multilateral such as the European partnership that supports the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) and the global partnership that supports the Human Frontier Science Program (HF SP). We can provide leadership through active engagement in these partnerships. For example, last year I was appointed as chair of the Governing Council of the International Agency for Cancer (IARC) and also of the General Assembly of the European and Developing Countries Clinical Trials Partnership (EDCTP).

The MRC exerts its influence through shaping international research policy or regulatory processes. For example our contributions to the discussion on the revised European clinical trials directive, our work on open access and research integrity or advice to the European Commission on the development of its framework programmes for research.

Is the landscape for research continuing to change?

In global health research we are now seeing a greater emphasis on non-communicable diseases, reflecting the changing global burden of disease. We are pleased that the MRC has been one of the founding members of the Global Alliance for Chronic Diseases that has developed new research strategies to tackle non-communicable diseases.

At the same time there has been a significant increase in investment in research from countries, particularly in Asia and South America, that were not previously so research active. China, India, South Korea, Singapore and countries in South America are creating a new focus for innovative ideas and knowledge that has changed the traditional post-war landscape of science and innovation. They’ve been investing because they see opportunities to harness ideas from innovation to boost their economy.

Our role in head office is to ensure that UK researchers can establish new links with these countries to develop collaborations. For example, the MRC manages offices in Beijing and Delhi on behalf of the UK Research Councils which has opened up many new opportunities for collaboration.

How will these developments help to advance medical research?

All aspects of medical research benefit from international collaboration. Indeed we know that research publications with international authorship have overall higher impact factors. New advances in the analysis of clinical data, personalisation of medicine, advanced therapies and regenerative medicine will all progress faster when tackled globally. UK investments in bioinformatics through the European research infrastructure, ELIXI R, will enable researchers to analyse larger data sets in increasingly sophisticated ways.

The globalisation of ideas in e-health, such as smart phone apps and telemedicine, are changing the way we think about patient care in an ageing population. Going Global, the third of the MRC’s four strategic aims in Research Changes Lives 2014–2019, sets out the framework in which we will continue to ensure that the MRC’s international strategy can support the researchers that we fund and advance medical research for the benefit of all.

Read a round-up of our Centenary event celebrating 100 years of international collaboration. A version of this article is also published in the Winter 2014 issue of our magazine Network.

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